Carrying a real book is at risk of looking old-fashioned, especially with the upcoming rush of digital E-readers. Several dozen models descended on the Consumer Electronics Show last month in Las Vegas, where a large corner of one hall was dedicated to the electronic readers.
The surge is fueled partly by the affection that owners have showered on their Amazon Kindles and Sony Readers, pioneers that helped popularize the new devices. Nearly everyone who has bought one—about 93 percent of owners—is happy with it, according to research from NPD Group. One reason is that the devices so far have tried to stay true to the spirit of a physical book, says Ross Rubin at NPD. "Manufacturers who have entered the market have focused extensively on simplicity."
But they've also appealed to a limited group of avid readers who buy a lot of books. The coming wave tries to expand the audience with models that can surf the Web, handle E-mail, watch videos, and perform any number of other computerlike tricks.
Most models maintain a monochrome screen that's optimized for reading text, but others combine it with a second, color screen for other tasks. Some are more like tablets in the vein of Apple's iPad, which generated consumer excitement with its rich color display, iPhone apps, and video streaming. And, oh yeah, it can also be used for reading books.
Other devices keep just one screen and its focus on reading, but they make it big enough to display more of a page and in a design that's true to the look of a newspaper or magazine. Their developers argue that readers or tablets can succeed without having to replace a smart phone at one end or a notebook at the other end.
Busy executives, for one, have smart phones and notebooks but still carry stacks of newspapers, magazines, and their own work documents, says Daren Benzi of Plastic Logic, developers of the Que E-reader. "It's a lot more convenient to have all that paper at their fingerprints in one device," he says. "We think there's room for another device to fit in between."
To help find the proper fit, we've identified five E-readers that illustrate key distinctions among the many choices about to descend on shoppers:
Alex. The Alex from Spring Design is among several E-readers that follow the Barnes & Noble Nook in terms of combining multiple screens. Like the Nook, the Alex achieves this on one face with a 6-inch, monochrome screen for reading books, while below that is a 3.5-inch color touch-screen. The similarity, in fact, led to a lawsuit filed by Spring Design against Barnes & Noble.
Alex's color screen looks more useful than the Nook's. On the Alex, it can browse the Web, send and receive E-mail, annotate books, and run other applications. The Alex runs the Android software that's on a growing list of smart phones and can download some of the same software.
Given the bad blood with Barnes & Noble, it is not surprising that the Alex is tied to the Borders bookstores, whose upcoming online shop will be the source for premium volumes. Free books can also be downloaded from the 1 million editions scanned by Google, among other sources. The device will connect to wireless 3G networks and Wi-Fi hot spots and has a memory card slot for transferring and storing content. It is scheduled to ship later this month for $360.
eDGe. The eDGe from Entourage Systems is another reader that combines two screens: a 9.7-inch display for books and publications and a 10.1-inch liquid crystal display. The LCD is actually a full-bore, touch-screen netbook running on the Android system from Google. That gives it a Web browser, E-mail, and other software, including applications that can be downloaded and are already used on Android smart phones. The netbook has no keyboard, relying on a software version, again like many smart phones. The E-reader uses the same E-ink tech as Amazon's Kindle.
Weighing 3 pounds, the eDGe has a unique, rotating hinge between its screens. It can fold closed, fold partway to sit upright on a desk, or lie completely flat with screens on either side. Content can be loaded via Wi-Fi wireless, SD memory cards, or a USB connector. The eDGe also has a built-in camera and microphone. The eDGe is expected in March for $500.